Today’s final Question Time for the summer sitting period exceeded all expectations – which wasn’t hard given there weren’t any. The first question from Scott Morrison on asylum seekers suggested that today was going to be like every other day for the last two weeks – a tennis match between the serves from the Opposition on asylum seekers and insulation, and returns by the Government on Health. But it was not to be.
The first Dorothy Dixer to Rudd was (not surprisingly) on Health, but quickly things departed from the norm. Rudd began to goad Abbott into responding, to his rhetorical questions, and then said that the leader of the opposition was as usual silent on the matter. Abbott rose on a point of order saying if the Government wanted to give him leave to talk about Health he would be happy to.
It was a premeditated tactic designed to do a number of things – firstly, to try and wrong foot Abbott, and see if he could talk off the cuff about Health policy; and two (and much more importantly) to make the topic of the day all about Health policy.
Abbott was not troubled at all by having to give a speech with no preparation – and as a former Health Minister for 5 years, if he couldn’t talk about Health you would be worried. Abbott also loves the Parliamentary debating style – he loves having a crowd behind him. And he was quite effective, delivering some good sound bites which the media will no doubt say meant he savaged Rudd.
The problem was he also fell for the third trap the Government had set – namely that without notes Abbott is more likely to go a bit rogue as it were, and start saying things that don’t sound so good out of the heat of the moment of Parliament. He talked about the Cancer Centre at the Darwin Hospital saying "It ought to be called the Tony Abbott Cancer Centre in Darwin”. He referred to the PET Scanner provided to the North Shore Hospital in Sydney, saying “It ought to be called the Tony Abbott PET Scanner at Royal North Shore." He also gave an interesting quote when he said “I don’t claim to have been the world’s greatest Health Minister” I am sure he was thinking he would be clever with a reference to Keating's title of “World’s greatest treasurer”, but all he did was give the Government an easy tag to pin on him.
But these missteps aside, the fact is that he was confident enough that when Albanese moved that he be allowed to keep speaking for another 5 minutes it looked like a hollow move on the ALP’s part. In the last 5 minutes however, he did start to repeat himself and he fell back on his old 2007 lines such as referring to Rudd as Doctor Death, and he couldn’t stop himself from attacking Rudd personally – it seems with Rudd opposition leaders can’t stop making it personal. But nonetheless it was a good performance – a real “rouse the troops performance” – devoid of content, but good on style.
Rudd by contrast was fully prepared and delivered a solid speech. It would not have won the day, but he did enough with a nice opening likening Abbott to Latham (a bloody long list that is). The advantage Rudd had however was that the whole point of the debate was to highlight how the Libs had run away from the Health debate. A case in point – not once in Abbott’s speech did he talk about his own plan for hospitals. Rudd honed in on what I think the ALP sees as Abbott’s weakness – that he is good at making a headline, but no good on the details. Rudd ended by taking Abbott’s line about not being the world’s best Health Minister and described him as the worst Health Minister the nation had ever had.
Now if proceedings had needed there, the Libs could have headed off for the break feeling quite chipper. But it didn’t, and unfortunately for them Abbott went over the top – no doubt feeling rather puffed up by his own performance. The first question after this little debate was from Abbott to Rudd, and he referred to a statement made by Rudd in 2007. I was expecting it to be about turning the boats back or some such, but no, it was about Rudd saying he thought there should be three debates between the leaders during the election. Abbott wanted to know if Rudd would commit to that, and then he snidley asked if Rudd would he improve his debating style.
It was very poor tactics by Abbott – far too much self-satisfaction. He forgets that debating styles in Parliament don’t go down as well outside the place – in fact Rudd performs a lot better in debates outside of Parliament than he does in. And so in believing he would win any debate with Rudd he over-reached. This allowed Rudd to have great fun referring to Abbott’s Health debate with Roxon during the last election for which he turned up last and then told Roxon that suggestions he could have got their on time were “bullshit”.
It also allowed Rudd to say yes they would have three debates and what’s more he suggested they start them next week with one on Health and Hospitals policy. And so at the end of Question Time Rudd got up and formally challenged Abbott to a debate on Health at the National Press Club next Tuesday.
That sound you just heard was the Liberal Party tactics committee tearing up their plans for from here till Budget Day.
The tactic by the ALP to allow Abbott to speak for 10 minutes in Parliamentary prime time was a a risky one, but they wagered it was worth it, because they wanted the issue of the day to be Health policy and not insulation or asylum seekers. They wanted the last day of Parliament to be on the topic that they wanted; they would not have dreamed that the Libs would let them make it the issue for next week as well.
The other thing is that Abbott asked some pretty good questions in his speech. The problem is that gives Rudd till Tuesday to come up with a response, and leave Abbott lacking some new things to target Rudd .
Next Tuesday is going to be a big day – and a tough day for the Libs because I think there are two points to the debate – the least important of which is who “wins the debate”. No one really cares who wins the debate because each side will think the other did – and the media will come out with “a both sides fought a draw” blah blah. But what I expect will happen is that Rudd will announce another major part of the Hospitals plan (remember he has indicated there is lots more to come). If he does and Abbott has nothing but rebuttals, then the story will again be about the new plan the Government has, and the opposition will look like just being anti for the sake of being anti.
But here’s the real problem for Abbott: if he comes along on Tuesday with some new policy himself, he will also be doing just what the Government wants him to do as well. The Government wants Abbott to release policy, because then they can do to it what they did to his Paid Parental Leave scheme. Policy is Abbott’s very weak point. He is an attacker of things, not a creator of well thought-out plans. He likes someone else to say something and then he does his best work ripping into it – it’s what he spent most of his time doing as Minister for Health. The Government would be wagering that the Libs are a long way from coming up with a fully-costed, well thought-out Hospitals scheme. So the challenge for Abbott on Tuesday is whether he risks being upstaged by Rudd, or does he come out with a new policy that will then be subjected to scrutiny from here till election day.
Either way the topic is Health, and that’s where the Government wants it to be. The only recent newspaper poll on Health is the Nielsen poll from last week (where were you this week, Newspoll?) which showed that 79% supported the federal Government taking a greater role in the funding of the federal Hospital funding (38% strongly supporting it). Heck 69% of Lib-Nat supporters were supportive of it!! That my friends is a popular policy.
After Abbott’s debate question, Quesiton Time continued some sort of normalcy. Nicola Roxon had a Dorothy Dixer on Health (pointing out Abbott hadn’t mentioned doctors once in his speech), and Tanner had a Dorothy Dixer on the ripping of $1b out of Health.
The Opposition asked one question about insulation, before making its second mistake of the day – they decided to target Julia Gillard over Education Spending.
The problem was that Gillard was in Gary Sobers like form today. She saw all the questions coming and a she absolutely destroyed the attack. She was asked about a school building at a NSW Primary school. In the course of her answer she referred to a claim yesterday made by the opposition about the Gordon East School. This did not amuse the opposition at all. If there is one thing they hate is dumb, incorrect claims from yesterday coming back to bite them in the arse. Here was the Live Minutes of her answer:
Mrs Hull, 2:57:46 PM, to Ms Gillard (Minister for Education)
Member ordered to withdraw
Speaker ordered Mr Champion to withdraw for 1 hour for interjecting after a warning had been given by the Chair, 3:00:35 PM Mr Champion left the Chamber at 3.01 p.m.
Member ordered to withdraw
Speaker ordered Mr Randall to withdraw for 1 hour for interjecting after a warning had been given by the Chair, 3:00:42 PM Mr Randall left the Chamber at 3.01 p.m.
Point of order, Mr Pyne, 3:00:56 PM, Ms Gillard, 3:01:36 PM, Point of order, Ms J. Bishop, 3:02:15 PM, Ms Gillard, 3:02:33 PM, Point of order, Ms J. Bishop, 3:03:04 PM, Ms Gillard, 3:04:19 PM, Point of order, Mr Pyne, 3:04:57 PM, Ms Gillard, 3:06:21 PM
The Libs kept protesting her talking about Gordon East Primary – making points of order whenever she tried to read out what the Principal of the School had said this morning to Julia on the phone. They made so many points of order that Julia and Albanese were able to quickly come up with a great plan – after Pyne’s last POO, Julia said she would conclude her answer and endeavour to provide the information to the House at a later date.
Cue the very next Dorothy Dixer to Gillard on the Building the Education Revolution. The ALP were laughing in delight as Julia stood up and thanked the member for that “Wonderfully perceptive question”. She then read out what the Principal of the school had said to her on the telephone:
“The school are so excited!… The kids can’t wait”… The school has been involved from whoa to go…. Comparing the new classrooms to the 2005 ones is just not right, the 2005 ones are modular, the new ones are brick… It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
And on and on she went. She then quoted the Liberal Member for Bowman, Andrew Laming, praising the Education stimulus in his local paper. God it was a sight to see.
And then guess what? Alex Hawke got up and asked the very next question to Gillard regarding the funding for special needs children at a number of Catholic schools. He prefaced the question by saying he could guarantee the Minster that he had spoken with a number of Principals who were not happy at all. One of the schools he mentioned was St Lucy’s. Now if you go on its website you see that they were in Canberra today as part of a rally to get more funding for disability education services (a cause very close to my heart). The problem for Hawke was that he also ended his remarks by referring to funding for the building the education revolution.
That was all the opening Gillard needed – except she had one more thing: she had actually spoken this morning also to the Principal of St Lucy’s and she was more than happy to relate their conversation to the House. Julia related how the education stimulus funding had enabled St Lucy’s to build a lift and refurbish the toilets. The school was originally set up as a school for the blind, but now catered to special needs, and thus they needed a new toilet block (to replace the 1960s one), and the lift, as you can imagine, is a great help for the children. It was just amazing stuff – it made you want to cry out with joy about how great the stimulus funding has been. The Libs hated it and both Pyne and Bronwyn Bishop came up with very, very lame points of order.
Gillard ended by pointing out the federal funds to Catholic schools were administered by the Catholic Education Office, and she thought it rather weird that with Abbott as leader that they the Opposition was now going to start bashing the Catholics…
Wayne Swan then interrupted the Julia show with a little interlude to point out in the last six months that the Opposition had only asked 2 questions on the economy. (Julia had previously commented when Hockey had made a point of order during one of her answers that she “understood the Member for North Sydney has to remind people he’s here from time to time”.) Swan also made a nice comment about Barnaby Joyce, wondering if he would be making the claims about US sovereign debt next week during Obama’s visit.
And then something extraordinary happened. The Liberals asked Gillard another question. It would be like a fielding captain looking at an opposition batsman on 234 off of 200 balls, and saying to his bowler – try and get him out with some slow, straight ones. Pyne trundled up and asked a question about the Hastings Public School. The only problem is that Julia had already addressed this issue comprehensively this morning in an interview with Fran Kelly. After asking his question, someone from the Government benches mutters “brave man”. Yep, brave like the charge of the Light Brigade. Into the valley off death went Christopher, and he wasn’t going to come out alive. If this were a school yard Gillard would have had the entire playground standing around in a circle yelling at Pyne: “stinky, stinky poo pants!”
It was embarrassing how in command she was. Bronwyn Bishop made a point of order, and Julia referred to her as “the future of modern liberalism”. She hit the Libs for six over the mid-wicket boundary with facts, she hit them for six over the long-off boundary with statements by Principals, she hit them for six over the square leg boundary with budget figures. It was almost criminal the way she taunted them, and thus it most in keeping that the Attorney General got to answer the last question to bring a nice steady end to proceedings.
Yes the right-wing media will try to keep up the line that Julia is going to take over from Rudd (heck even Kerry O’Brien asked her tonight on the 7:30 Report). But what that media should also mention is that back in February when Newspoll asked who they preferred as PM – Abbott or Gillard, Gillard won 49% to 38%! The media can talk all they like about fantasies of Gillard taking over from Rudd. What they should mention is that the ALP have two people who quite convincingly can beat Abbott.
If that, and the way they were tactically outplayed today, doesn’t give members of the Liberal Party pause, then I don’t know what will.